Wind beneath their wings

Hannah ThompsonYouGovLabs and UK Public Opinion Website Editor
March 27, 2010, 1:52 AM GMT+0

Despite the media focus on Sarah, Samantha, and to a lesser extent Miriam, it seems that likeability of the leader’s wives is not a reason in itself to vote for their husbands, a new survey conducted by YouGov has shown.

Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, has the edge over Samantha Cameron in the popularity stakes, with 35% of the British public describing her as very likeable or likeable compared to 30% who felt this way about Samantha Cameron.

Nick Clegg’s wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, recorded the lowest approval scores with only 12% describing her as very likeable or likeable. 49% admitted that they didn’t know how they felt about her and 32% said they found her neither likeable nor unlikeable (compared to 19% for Sarah Brown and 24% for Samantha Cameron), suggesting that her decision to remain in her job as a partner of law firm DLA Piper and take a backseat in her husband’s campaign has left the public undecided as to how they feel about her.

This is in stark contrast to her counterparts, who have made no secret of their desire to promote themselves as part of their husbands’ electoral campaigns. And Nick Clegg, Miriam’s husband, also receives a fairly ambiguous reception; 40% called him neither likeable nor unlikeable, and only six percent quoted him as ‘very likeable’. While this might in part be due to the reduced media coverage they receive, could it also suggest that likeability of wives leads to increased popularity of husbands (and vice versa)?

Influence on voting outcomes

It would seem that actually, the answer is no. Despite ongoing PR campaigns and many photo opportunities with all kinds of famous figures, when the public were asked what they thought about Sarah Brown describing the PM as her ‘hero’, while 23% felt it was ‘admirable’, exactly the same percentage called it ‘over-sentimental’. And one third (33%) felt that given her role, the statement was irrelevant. When asked specifically about the place the wives’ popularity holds in the electoral race, just over half (51%) felt that this was not important at all. Men and women generally agree on this, although women are slightly more likely than men to feel that the wives’ popularity has some influence on voting outcomes (43% versus 39%). A tiny four percent overall feel that wives’ popularity is crucial in the electoral race.

In fact, far from helping the leaders gain in popularity, many believe that using wives as PR devices may even damage the leaders’ credibility. It seems that likeability and exposure do not translate into votes, as 57% strongly agreed that the wives are used solely for publicity and electioneering purposes and don’t add anything to politics.

Portrayal in the media

Perhaps the reason that the wives’ popularity, especially that of well-known figures such as Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron, does not necessarily correlate with their husbands’ approval ratings, is that many disagree with the way the women are portrayed in the media.

In addition to those who feel that the wives are purely ‘used for publicity’, 76% feel the media concentrate too much on the way that the wives dress, and 70% think they should be seen as women with careers and values in their own right. Perhaps unsurprisingly, women felt this more keenly than men, with 46% agreeing that the wives are admirable in their own right, irrespective of their husbands, compared to only 33% of men. Only 15% of the total felt that it was right for the media to focus on the women solely due to their role as ‘leaders’ wives’. Could it be that the way in which the wives are portrayed turns the public off from any influential effect their presence might have?

The public remain divided. When asked how the presence of the wives helps present the leaders as ‘well-rounded, family men’, 33% thought it helped the campaign; but exactly the same figure did not.

With such disparate results, and a clear backlash towards the wives’ portrayal in the press, it seems that Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez’s PRs and husbands alike should take a long hard look at their strategies before assuming that the public appreciate being swept away on a wave of marital media momentum.

For survey details and full results, please click here

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